Fun fact: The Fairbanks North Star Borough manages about 1,000 miles of trails for recreational use. From skiing to mushing and everything in between, the borough's Parks and Recreation Department is committed to open and accessible fun in a swath of land equal in size to New Jersey.
Another fact: I have been woefully negligent in exploring Fairbanks trails. So when an announcement flew by on my Facebook feed several weeks ago, I stopped and looked again.
The Fairbanks Trails Challenge is a full-on outdoor-themed dare, says trails coordinator Bryant Wright, but in the best of ways. As in, "How many trails do you and your kids think you can find this winter, in the middle of dark days, cold temperatures, and busy schedules?"
I was hooked.
Challenging and tame trails
The Fairbanks Trails Challenge is a simple concept that can reap big rewards, tangible and otherwise, for those who participate, according to Wright. With 10 trails between Fairbanks and North Pole (also part of the Fairbanks North Star Borough) identified as "challenge sites," terrain is varied enough to inspire experienced skiers, snowshoers, or hikers, yet tame enough for those traveling with small children or who have limited mobility. "Find, photograph, and share" is a mantra used by organizer; instructions posted on signs indicating visitors have found the right place are usually posted within a mile of the trailhead to encourage success.
With plentiful amounts of snow in much of Alaska this winter, it's been a joy to pack my Nordic skis wherever I go, in this case to Fairbanks. I'd originally intended to poke around in the same old places after a day of meetings. But a phone conversation with Wright convinced me that a few hours skiing the residential trails near Pearl Creek Elementary would be just the thing to feed my adventurous side, so we agreed to meet on a sunny afternoon at the trailhead a few miles from town.
A great part about the Trails Challenge is the discovery of new places and things to see in this part of the Interior, in addition to initiating action by residents.
"It's often tough to stay active in Fairbanks during a dark, cold winter," Wright said. "But we have amazing park and trail resources; positive experiences and exercise opportunities are there for the taking."
Wright, a lifelong Alaskan, also knows how tough it can be for parents to find activities for everyone, given today's multi-layered family calendars.
"Many people have expressed how much they appreciate having a program they can do with their kids, as opposed to dropping them off for a practice or event. Parents can actively guide their kids, expose them to new things, and teach them how to enjoy nature in the winter."
Exploring new places can be fun for youngsters, and the addition of a challenge with rewards from local retailers like REI and College Town Pizzeria & Creamery make it doubly so, Wright said.
‘Test limits and learn’
As we skied to the trailhead, located at the fringe of Pearl Creek Elementary's field space, kids were outside climbing on playground equipment and sliding down snow-covered hills during an afternoon recess break. It seemed the perfect place to talk about outdoor play.
"Parks and trails are the perfect place to test limits and learn new things — so much of being a kid is about that. It's that kind of growth we want to make available through programs like the Trails Challenge," Wright told me, pointing to the network of solid and dotted lines on a trail map in full view of the school's classrooms. Kids do have ample opportunities to explore trails, according to the school's website, ranging from snowshoeing to skiing in the Nordic park we were about to explore. A full map of the trail system is available to parents and community members.
Adding to the value of the program is the expansion of residents' knowledge about the connectivity of their trail systems. For example, that same Pearl Creek trail we started on wound around to a powerline trail, then over to the University of Alaska Fairbanks system, which then connects to other trails within city limits, effectively making it a winter commuter route for some and a full-day recreational playground for others. With a winter like this one — cold but not too cold, with fluffy, snow making every landmark a picture postcard of Alaska's beauty — Wright hopes Fairbanksans and winter visitors to the Golden Heart City will take advantage of the opportunity.
Temperatures hovered near 15 degrees F as Wright and I kicked and glided around the placid Puffin Loop, No. 9 on the Trails Challenge list. Just before the 1-mile mark we stopped at the metal sign signifying our successful arrival at a challenge site, and I snapped a quick selfie by the marker. Wright says users are encouraged to share their photo on the borough's Parks and Recreation Facebook page, promoting the program and the benefits of getting outdoors, but that's a bonus feature.
The real deal, he reminded me, as we continued through a grayish birch forest flush with moose and snowshoe hare tracks, is to just go. Any time, and in any way.
Fairbanks North Star Borough Trails Challenge
*Challenge consists of 10 trails ranging from easy to difficult between Fairbanks and North Pole. The program started in December and runs through March, with a celebration event scheduled for March 16 at Tanana Lakes.
*Each of the 10 sites has an marker sign designating the trail as part of the challenge. Visitors are encouraged to snap a selfie with the sign, and post on social media with the hashtag #FNSBTrails.
*Skiing, snowshoeing, fat biking, and hiking are all acceptable forms of trail challenge recreation, but Wright says to respect trail signs and other users, and stay only on the type of trail suitable for your type of recreation.
*Trail Challenge participants who visit and record all 10 trails will be eligible to win prizes.
Erin Kirkland is author of Alaska On the Go: exploring the 49th state with children, and publisher of AKontheGO.com.